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tv   Firing Line With Margaret Hoover  PBS  October 27, 2018 5:30am-6:01am PDT

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>> what is a united states senator doing writing a book about loneliness? is that how he feels in the senate? the junior senator from nebraska, ben sasse, this week on "firing line." >> "firing line with margaret hoover" is made possible by... corporate funding is provided by... >> my guest today is ben sasse, the junior senator from nebraska, a historian, a former college president, bush administration alumnus, and, sometimes, uber driver. having studied at harvard, oxford, and yale, sasse is
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known, among other things, for his dust-ups with president trump, who, much to the senator's delight, has taken to calling him "the gym rat." those trump run-ins have endeared the senator to the never trump crowd but also caused considerable consternation among his nebraska constituents, who voted for trump by a margin of 25%. his new book, "them: why we hate each other -- and how to heal," claims america's greatest problem, loneliness, cannot be cured by politics. so, what does it mean that a sitting senator says our problems cannot be solved in congress? critics and admirers alike want to know what the future holds for the intellectual from nebraska. does he have what it takes to put his ideas into action, whether it's filling the leadership void among never trump conservatives or helping to wrest power from both democrats and republicans as an independent in congress? well, he made a choice not to speak from the floor during his entire first year in the united states senate. i certainly hope he'll make up for it today here. senator sasse, welcome to "firing line." >> thank you for having me.
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and i prefer uber driver and gym rat to intellectual, but thanks for the intro. >> so, your new book argues that the root cause of our problems in america has nothing to do with politics and can't be solved by politics, but it's actually loneliness. first, can you define for us what you mean by loneliness? >> sure. we're social animals. humans are relational beings, and we're meant to do stuff together. we're nouns, obviously, but we're also verbs. we're actors. we want to go and do things. we need vocations. we need callings. we need work. we need projects. and we need co-workers. we need neighbors. we need friends. we need family. and that kind of tocquevillian institutional, neighborly, local stuff is the heart of who we are. but, right now, there's so much local collapse in those institutions that people are looking to politics to fill that void, and i think that really is a function of loneliness. >> so, why are we lonely? >> we're lonely partly because of the -- largely because of the digital revolution. the digital revolution is a pretty fascinating time to live in economic history. in the past, there were hunter-gatherers. there were agrarians. then there were industrialists. now we live in an economy of
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ones and zeroes and digits and bits, stuff that really isn't rooted in place. and humans are meant to be rooted in place. and, right now, this digital revolution is undermining place. >> if loneliness sort of is our biggest problem, how does it express itself? >> so, first, just at a basic one-to-one interpersonal level, there's data now that shows, at the nih, for instance, that loneliness may be our biggest public-health crisis. being lonely for a day is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes that day. we need to tackle that stuff, because it's an indicator, a flashing red light of things going wrong. we're gonna have our third year of declining life expectancy in the u.s. this year. opioids, suicides, a whole bunch of deaths of despair. so, one piece of loneliness is just that. it's social isolation. but another aspect of loneliness is -- you can have lots of people around you. you can have a lot of "social-media friends." you can have a lot of apparent relationships that aren't actually deep. and, right now, there's a thinning out of shared projects, shared work, lifelong
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co-workers, community around your extended family. and as that stuff hollows out, it turns out humans wither on the vine. >> so, how do you think about tackling those issues that you've sort of diagnosed, you've analyzed, you've studied without government? >> yeah, so, i wrote this book, "them," to be constructive and to raise a conversation and hope help drive a conversation about the new habits of rootedness in the digital age. and the vast majority of that is not gonna be about government. statistically, if you know the person who lives two doors down from you in your neighborhood, you're pretty likely to be happy. if you go from 200 to 500 to 1,000 social-media friends, you don't get any happier. that's kind of a basic truth that social science is showing us right now. but most americans haven't figured out yet, "how do we incorporate that into our lives? how do we change our habits? how do we build the rootedness again?" >> so, how does the loneliness problem impact our politics? >> so, i think there are a lot of people, right now, who are looking to political tribes to find meaning. we are meant to be tribal, but
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your tribe is supposed to be your family. >> they're filling a void of loneliness? >> i think political tribalism is ramping in this moment, absolutely, and it's a big problem, but it's a downstream problem from the real problem. political tribe is usually, right now, anti-tribe. "what am i against?", not "what am i for?" and we've got to be for stuff before we can sort out our politics, both for and against. >> so, do you think that if we waved a wand and it were able to solve this loneliness problem, right? because, obviously, it's complex. would that fix our hyper-partisan politics? >> i think it would have a huge positive effect, right? because you would be able to look at politics as a second- and a third- and a fourth-order identity, not a core identity. i'm a dad. i'm a husband. i'm a nebraskan. i'm a football addict. i'm a christian. i'm a republican. i'm a conservative. i'm temporarily a public official. but when i sort out all those different identities, all those things are true, but there's a whole bunch of ways to get that wrong. my football addiction -- in nebraska, it's the second-most-important religion
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is to be a football addict. >> not doing so well this year. >> that's -- oh, that was harsh, margaret. we're supposed to be friends. nebraska is the winningest team over the last 50 years. we've just had a bumpy year right now. >> 0-6 is pretty bumpy. >> very bumpy. we should do a whole nother program on that. but we will recover. coach frost will lead us back to the promised land. if my football addiction displaces my obligations to my kids, my wife should smack me upside the head, right? there's something fundamentally wrong if my football addiction takes priority over what i owe to my kids or what i owe to my spouse or my theological commitments. right now, that's what's happening in our politics, i think. being a republican and a democrat or being a progressive and a conservative -- those policy fights absolutely matter. i'm serving for a six-year term for a time to try to love my neighbor through this -- because i think politics do matter, but if politics are your first-order love, if they're first-order tribe, there's something wrong with you. and, so, when you say, "wave our magic wand and solve loneliness," what you really mean is give people more connections where they actually
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live. our politics would get a lot better fast. >> okay. so, how, then, does media play into this? because i don't think sean hannity's problem is that he's lonely. >> so, a lot of viewers, cable-addicted viewers, are very lonely. we have a lot of data on this. so, we can talk about the way more and more of our media tribes do fan service for a very lonely viewership. obviously, lots of people are watching cable news at different times. but i think it's worth unpacking the numbers a little bit. so, fox and msnbc, the most-watched political programming in america right now -- they really have about 1% of the american public tuned in. well, 50, 60, 70 years ago, most americans watched the same programming. this is a technological and an economic and a structural change. it's more than that, but it is that. 93% of american households, right now, have access to 500 or more channels. >> right. >> at one level, great. for my football addiction, i'm glad i can watch every game i want. but, actually, three channels, in the 1950s, meant americans had a lot of common grammar. "i love lucy" was watched by 68%
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of american households in the mid-1950s. so if you and i differed on politics, if we differed on sports loyalties, if we got into a spat about something at work, we could still pivot back to whatever goofy thing desi did last night to annoy lucy. and we had that in common. we have none of that now. and so our cable-news addictions are often speaking only to people who believe exactly what we believe. well, then we can misrepresent our opponent's views. >> yeah, but it also plays into this political cycle, right? if loneliness is the cause and people are lonely, and so they're going to politics and then they're going to media, hyper-partisan media that's drumming that up, that has an effect on the political system, as well, which i know you, personally, have caught the brunt of, via sean hannity. >> yeah, so, i'm the second- or third-most conservative senator by voting record. i'm a deeply conservative guy and i can make all the philosophical and pragmatic arguments for why i should be. but i'm not a very partisan person. i think both of these parties are pretty lame. i don't think either the democratic or the republican party have a long-term vision of the country. and i don't want to spend a ton of time on sean hannity, but wherever you take this is fine.
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he endorsed me in my primary. i'm 1 of 8 people in the senate who's never been a politician before. subsequently, he's made a pretty loud noise about unendorsing me to change his view, and it's really because i've held the same positions over time, and president trump doesn't hold all the same positions i hold. i work with the president on a number of issues, but because i'm not rah-rah for the president, it's led sean to say that he can't be on the same team with me, even though i have the same conservative policy beliefs i've always held. >> i mean, you've thought deeply about movement conservatism, about the ideas behind movement conservatism, the principles of what the modern american conservative movement was about. >> yeah. >> which is really what hannity used to be about and what many of the pundits, i think, on the right used to espouse. how do you account for, really, the shift in principle or maybe the lack of principle? and how has media played into that? >> what i think has happened is -- people have become less and less committed to policy and legislative principles and more and more committed to personalities and that,
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clearly -- the president didn't cause this, but the president has been the best at playing the fiddle of this. in 2015, 2016, he ran one of the most unorthodox campaigns ever, and he won lots and lots of america to him because he's a great marketer. and it turns out, a lot of the conservative media world that i thought was a little more driven by policy commitments ended up being a little more driven by being anti-democrat. and president trump was great at doing anti-democrat. >> but is that because of loneliness? because that's a pretty significant problem in our politics, what you've just outlined. >> it is a big problem in our politics, but i do think it's because of loneliness. political institutions matter, but what really matters is volunteerism love, neighborliness, persuasion. most of the institutions that should matter shouldn't be political institutions. when they're hollow politics fills the void. >> so, the entire first year you were in the senate, you didn't speak. you were conscientiously choosing to observe what was happening. and when you finally went down to the well of the senate, you had a lot of observations and a lot to say. what did you learn?
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>> so, i'm a historian by training, as you said in your introduction. the senate's been around 230 years. it's a very important institution over the course of those 230 years. it's not a very important institution right now. and i didn't want to arrive as a newbie and announce what's wrong with the u.s. senate, 'cause i didn't exactly know, but i wanted to sort it out. so i interviewed -- i don't know -- probably 2/3 of all the senators in private in the course of the first year i was in the institution. it's an old tradition. this wasn't just some random thing i did. for decades and decades in the senate, people didn't speak their first year. and, frankly, i think the vast majority of what senators say -- it's not that interesting. so it wasn't like it was some giant sacrifice to learn the institution for 11 or 12 months before you spoke. but why is the senate so unimportant right now? and, again, we need to fix it. we still brand ourselves the greatest deliberative body in the world. it's not true. i live in a 25,000-person farm town. there are a dozen not-for-profits in my little farm town that have boards that deliberate much more effectively than the u.s. senate, because people argue, but they listen to
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each other. you try to put the best construction on your opponent's argument. why does the senate not do that? mostly because cable tv news has swallowed the senate whole. the senate's empty almost every day. when senators are making these long-winded speeches, sometimes getting real emotional and pontificating or whatever, there's no one in the room. the c-span camera's angle, though, doesn't show that, and so they're doing it for tv clips later. that's because we're not actually a group of 100 people who are trying to build relationships and solve problems. as delegates who go off to washington for a time but plan to go back home to where you're from, most people are moving -- most of our current politicians are moving to d.c., and they never plan to go home. they want to become lobbyists or pundits when they leave the institution, and so they're trying to rally a base of 1% or 3% in a really intense way, not find 70% solutions. it's not healthy for the future of the republic. >> in a previous life, you worked for mckinsey & company and you specialized in turnarounds for companies. if mitch mcconnell came to you and said, "senator sasse, please
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observe what's wrong with the senate and then fix it," how would you fix it? >> so, cameras are a big, big problem. >> would you argue against transparency in the senate? >> no, i want more transparency. we should have more pen and pad. we should have more audio recording. but the grandstanding for the cameras actually changes the institution. >> so, how do you fix that? >> we should have a lot more committees without cameras in them. national security works better in the congress than domestic policy. why? because we end up in a classified scif a lot of the time, and in those places, the american people would be stunned at the way people treat each other with respect. we should also try to do a lot fewer things in the senate. we should set 3 to 5 big priorities of what we're gonna do for 24 months and we should only do those things and we should set up committees in response to our priorities for the two years, not have all these powers and the standing committees that are mostly just places for people to grandstand for sound bites. >> all right, so, you're not the only senator or even the first senator to come on this program and say there are problems with the senate. >> okay. >> as you know, william f. buckley jr. was the original host of "firing line." and we have a repository of all of his best moments.
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here's one, the argument of which you may recognize. take a look. >> wow. lots of meat and lots to argue with there. >> lots of meat and lots to argue with, but i've got to ask you -- in 2014, you ran.
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i mean, you had been a senate-confirmed appointee in the department of health and human services in the bush administration. you ran in 2014, largely on a platform about repealing the affordable care act. you got to the senate. republicans had, after trump won the election, the senate, the house, and the white house. finally, there was an opportunity to deliver on a promise that republicans and conservatives have promised their constituencies for years. that was a big thing, and you argue we should go big things. why wasn't the senate able to do something big? >> yeah. 'cause it turns out, lots and lots of republicans wanted to be against obamacare but not actually be for a system of free-market healthcare, and so when you had to actually act, there were a bunch of people who didn't want to do it. >> why didn't you take the lead in writing the repeal bill? >> so, when you're a freshman and you're not on a committee of jurisdiction, you don't have the leverage to get that done. >> but you're thoughtful and independent and you sort of do your own thing, in a way. this is one of the critiques, i think. so many people are inspired by your rhetoric and inspired by
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what you say and then hope that you can fill a leadership void. >> yeah. so, i think that -- back to your hatfield quote, when he wanted to go shorter term, when we need to go longer term, the senate is so immediately accountable to democratic-populaced impulse every minute. i think there's -- he wanted to abolish the senate. he wouldn't admit it, right? but he wanted the whole system to be swallowed by a majoritarian congress. i actually think the problem with the senate is there's not enough super-majoritarian instinct in the place, that you want to do 70% solutions that may take a bunch of years to work out. >> you talked about how the senate needs to talk to each other more. you guys need to talk to each other in order to transcend the polarization and the partisanship. we have just gone through, as a country, probably the most historically contentious and hyper-partisan supreme court confirmation process that anybody's ever seen, certainly, in the modern era. you sat on the judiciary committee. in your experience, what did you do to help transcend or model that talking to each other?
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>> so, let's start by admitting that the senate had a very low moment. it was an ugly time, and the judiciary committee did a bad job. so, the ford family wasn't well-served. the kavanaugh family wasn't well-served. your and my kids weren't well-served. civic institutions had declining trust in this moment. i think that the senate is not prepared to handle the very important metoo movement. but one of the things i did was, when dr. ford came forward with her allegations, i went to the judiciary committee and to our leadership. and i think we were due to vote in three days at that point. and i said, "we can't possibly vote in three days. we have to have a chance for this woman to be heard." we ultimately went from six fbi investigations to a seventh. the fbi ended up interviewing, i think, 146 people in the course of the process. so, one of the things i wanted to do was slow that down a little bit so we should deliberate. >> what about talking to your fellow democrats, right? i mean, there was just this moment. we all watched it on television, right? you talk about the reality tv, where it just felt like you guys weren't talking to each other.
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did you have any private moments where you tried to sort of reach across the aisle or work with your colleagues to de-escalate? >> here's the point on democrats. i talked to a number of democrats in private. and there's a healthy handful of democrats in the senate that are really angry with their own colleagues about how they handled that. and i wish we could turn off the klieg lights a little bit more often, because some of those conversations were -- democrats were agreeing with me about the way other democrats had acted. if we'd have been in a room of 6 or 8 of us, i think people would have exchanged some pretty harsh words and hugged parts of it out. and, instead, since it was all done on tv, those conversations just became simply tribal. this is sort of what "them" is about, that there's an unhealthy group of people in washington, d.c., in our political class, who aren't rooted anymore. they don't think they represent people who wanted to be rooted. they want to scream a lot. that's not gonna solve problems, either political or, more importantly, civil society. >> you've described yourself as someone who isn't sure if you're a republican anymore. even though, you know, overwhelmingly, you vote with a
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republican agenda, why do you feel so alienated from the republican party? >> i am the second- or third-most conservative voter in the senate, and i've been a conservative long before donald trump and i'll be a conservative long after donald trump is president. and, so, i have policy commitments, and, regularly, the president has come to embrace my stated policy views. and, so, the things we vote on in the senate, the president and i end up having the same position on legislation a lot, but the party seems less about a long-term vision for the country and more about the short term of which person we're for and which people we're against, rather than which policies we need to be debating. and i'm happy to be a part of the party of abraham lincoln, but i want the party of abraham lincoln to capture some of that history to thrust us forward into a 10- and 25-year vision of how we solve problems. >> so, a lot of the critique for you is about how the senate isn't functioning properly. you've called yourself an independent conservative that caucuses with the republicans.
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and there is this path that is being considered, that if there were maybe 5 or 6, maybe even 4 independents in the senate -- maybe not independents, but individuals who caucus together apart from the republican and democratic party, there would be a way to wrest power both from the republicans and the democrats and to take the balance of power back in order to sort of navigate a path that could be more functional. >> i think that kind of idea -- first of all, it appeals to me in lots of ways, but i think that kind of idea would require some democrats to also be interested in some long-term debates. and i think, in the news of the day, the last, you know, 48 hours, people are talking a lot about the u.s. role in the middle east. and you see some assertion of a traditional senate view of the long term in foreign policy. and, so, i have some hopes in the foreign-policy and national-security space. i don't really see much of that movement in domestic policy right now. but i'd be hopeful if we could find those parties.
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>> one of the things that elevated you and really set you apart from your colleagues as a freshman senator is that you took a really strong stand against candidate trump in 2016. how has your critique changed of president trump two years in, now that he's the president and he has a record of two years? >> i think the president has done some things very well and some things that i'm critical of, but one of the things he's done very well is -- he's built a very strong team in a number of domains. and, so, on national security, for instance, there are places where he might freelance on twitter or at rallies, and i think that my constituents have come to realize -- maybe they realized it before i did -- that sometimes the rhetoric he's using might be kind of like a guy in a bar, not really all the policy things that are gonna flow from it. and, so, he defers to his team a good bit, and he's hired a bunch of really good and smart people. and, so, some of the governing of the trump administration really does have a pretty significant difference between
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the decisions that are made in policy and the ways that we might talk about it in the short term on cable. i'm not comfortable with that, not because of tone or demeanor so much as because of the things i care about in politics are generational. and so i'm anxious about the way the president picks at the scabs of internal division in america, because we have a lot of them. but at a governing level, a bunch of the day-to-day decisions, i think, are a good bit calmer than many of us thought they would be. >> how about his character? >> i've spent a lot of time talking to the president. when you sit like this with donald trump, he engages you. he is not distracted. that's great at one level. it's also really dangerous if we don't have a history and a future in mind. and language and oaths and words and bonds and pledges and promises from the past and the future -- they're really important in a republic. and the president has a very different view of rhetoric. he likes to live in the moment he's in and feel, i think, unconstrained by the past and future. >> but i asked you about his
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character. >> i think believing that your words matter is one of the most fundamental things about your character. >> and you've taken a stance against how he's behaved, too. on twitter, you've indicated that the way he's behaving was beneath the office of the presidency. you are a grounded, religious, homespun, midwestern guy who clearly has problems with the character that the president has displayed. so, how do you balance prioritizing the policy outcomes versus the character of the leader in office? >> so, i think the american people made their choice, and they elected this guy for these four years. and in the same way when i got to the senate in 2014, president obama had two years left in his eight years, and you deal with the president you have, 'cause in our constitutional system, the legislature's supposed to wrestle with the long-term issues, and the president kind of speaks for the nation, in a way. but his main day-to-day job is administering article 2. and i think president trump is
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administering article 2, building a good team to do that, but he has a very different sense of his rhetorical obligations as president. i don't think it's a really healthy model for the long term, but this is the guy we have now, and i want to work with him wherever i can. >> this is my final question. because you're a u.s. senator, because you have an extraordinary amount of power to influence policy -- i mean, one of only 100 people who are in this position. you've diagnosed a problem. is there one thing that you can do from the senate to help fix it? >> yeah, i think we need to do massive ethics reform. i think one of the things we can do -- i've introduced, i think, five pieces of legislation on this in the last three months. it's gonna be bundled, as well, but there are some standalone pieces of legislation. we need to recognize that the american people don't trust the political class, and lots of the reasons they don't are legitimate. and we should start trying to refill those reservoirs of trust. we should end the revolving door of people in congress going downtown to lobby when they leave office. they should go back to where they're from. i believe in everybody's first amendment rights to
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protest and speech and redress of grievances. so you can lobby all you want. you shouldn't be a former lawmaker that gets paid to lobby. we should end any ambiguity about whether or not presidential candidates need to disclose their tax returns. we should end the idea that you can be a foreign-policy cabinet official -- secretary of state or secretary of defense or u.s. trade rep -- and have your spouse go raise money from foreign entities, where you're making public-trust decisions on behalf of the american people. there should be no ambiguity about whether taxpayers are gonna pay for settlements for sexual-harassment or -assault allegations in congress. there should be no insider trading. there's a whole bunch of gray loopholes. so, i want to do lots of ethics reform so that the american people can look at washington and say, "hmm. i don't really trust or like all those people, but i'm less sure that they're getting rich on my dime." >> senator sasse, thank you for coming to "firing line." good luck with your book. >> thanks for having me. >> "firing line with margaret hoover" is made possible by...
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